Q&A: A conversation with Gen. (Ret.) Wesley Clark about U.S. policies
June 23, 2015
I caught up with Gen. (Ret.) Wesley Clark as he battled his way through flight delays, crowded airports and security line interruptions. He graciously navigated through his travels all while speaking to me at length about his fascinating book, "Don't Wait for the Next War: A Strategy for American Growth and Global Leadership."
KARINA WETHERBEE: Thank you for talking with me about your book. I really enjoyed reading it. Jumping right in, do you feel the current situation in Syria would have occurred if the U.S. had not been active militarily in Afghanistan and Iraq to the extent that it has been?
GEN (RET.) WESLEY CLARK: The question is what about Syria today. The truth is there was a moderate opposition, but it was never really supported by the administration and there are multiple reasons for that, but it's very hard in Syria, when you are training fighters, to tell who is on your side and who is going to stay on your side, versus who is going to take your training and weapons and go to the other side.
KW: Your plan of having a grand strategy, with our country being so bitterly divided politically, is it possible to formulate a strategy further reaching than the four to eight years of a presidential administration?
WC: Oh, I think it is possible, if you bring the American people together around the understanding of the need for direction, but we don't have a grand strategy in America today. What has emerged for a strategy is only a foreign policy strategy, and it's fought over between Democrats and Republicans, with the Republican louder voices clambering for more troops into the Middle East and the Democrats attempting to restrain that and to pull back. But, that's not a grand strategy. It should start with a national strategy, which includes an appreciation of the economy — and for a long time in the United States, we've gotten away with not having a real, national economic strategy. You might say America free enterprise and innovation poses as an economic strategy, but of course it's not a real strategy.
We happened to be blessed with a lot of innovation and we have wonderful resources and a large market, and it promotes economic growth, but the strategy of the federal government in the 19th century was to build commerce across the country, and we did use the government to build things and support private enterprise in the Erie Canal and the Transcontinental Railroad and ventures like that, where as today, we are harping at any effort by government to help promote or stimulate the private economy.
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We've turned it over increasingly simply to big business. Big business does what it wants so, in the airline industry, for example, we approved mergers to the extent that we only have four major airlines in America now, and if there is a thunderstorm in Chicago, literally thousands of travelers have their plans disrupted — like today.
The question I am raising is whether or not — when you look at the competition we face in the world — whether that kind of strategy is going to be adequate in the future.
KW: The political divisiveness, then, it seems, is the umbrella factor over all our problems in creating some sort of national strategy, economically.
WC: Sure. We politically chose to divide the country. We allowed people to own multiple TV stations in the same market, we got rid of the fair opinions in media laws — we used to have to provide information on both sides in a public media market — we got rid of that. So, these changes have made some organizations extremely wealthy — but have they served the country? Well, that's the question.
KW: How do you suggest we mend the lack of trust that the American public has with Washington?
WC: You have to start by growing the economy, and I think the way you start doing that is by emphasizing what we do well, which is natural resources. We have all the hydrocarbons we need. We should be exporting crude oil today. I think it starts with economic growth and then it goes from there. And that economic growth starts with energy independence.
KW: You do talk about the ultimate goal of moving to renewable sources of energy, with the hydrocarbon component being the bridge. How best do we guarantee the motivation of the oil companies to participate in a process, which, I guess, in essence, will spell their demise?
WC: There will always be a need for oil for petrochemical purposes. There will always be a need for some amount of petroleum for transportation and for jet fuel, if nothing else. So, it's not their demise, totally, but it means that they've got to seek growth somewhere else.
But, you know, these are private companies; they are innovative, and if they believe they will have to do that, then they will do that. This was the whole slogan of British Petroleum in the 2007 to 2009 period. BP stood for "Beyond Petroleum" — and they were very innovative at that point. It turned out that governments weren't that serious about climate change, global warming or carbon tax, and so they were able to slip back into their more comfortable, traditional ways of finding oil and producing it for the market.
KW: So, the motivation is to drive their participation in the outcome?
WC: Right. The essence is to put a carbon tax on liquid fuel, and the tax has to go up over time, and if that's done, and if it's predictable, then customers will see that their SUV is costing them $70 a week to fill up this year, while five years from now that SUV might cost them twice that much to fill up. And then they'll say, "This might be the last SUV I get. I want something else." They start to talk like that, and the industry responds. And that's how you get more efficient vehicles and electric power and so forth.
You have to drive it from the demand side. I think the president's effort to put forth a 54-mile-per-gallon efficiency standard is a good thing, but the public, you know, will go back just as they are now, with low prices … the first thing that happens is SUV sales spike.
KW: I guess that in that regard we are rather shortsighted as a population, not really viewing things in the longer view.
WC: Well, what's good for an individual is not necessarily good for an economy. It's good for the individual to take advantage of low prices and buy or sell, but someone in this economy, given the human scale on earth and what we are capable of today, we have to have some kind of vision about where we are going.
So, on climate change, we know that three facts are clear. One: The climate is changing as a result of increased energy absorbed in the atmosphere, and No. 2: that carbon is a so-called greenhouse gas that promotes the absorption of energy in the atmosphere, and No. 3: that this is caused by people.
KW: With that in mind, at the time you penned what you termed the "inflection point" concept, compared to right now, has the U.S. in your opinion moved in that span of time in more of a positive or negative direction?
WC: I don't think we've moved effectively. I think we are still stuck. The economy is not growing, although employment numbers would suggest that people are getting jobs, but labor force participation is low, and hence that's what all the discussion is about with respect to income inequality. So, we have to move past that point by the political process. That is what is going to move us.
KW: Climate change, of course, is not going to wait for the political process. Do you think we are too far behind to make a change or do you think that with some real action and commitment, from the national strategy perspective, that we can turn it around?
WC: I think it would have been better if we had been able to take strong measures several years ago when we first realized this, but it's not too late to make a difference.
KW: What are your thoughts on the recent provocative shows of strength by Russia — namely Putin's announcement of making available 40 new missiles to Russia's arsenal? And what does this mean for Eastern Europe?
WC: The U.S. has to sort out what its strategy is with regards to Putin, but it is important to make sure that Ukraine is not attacked and overrun. There needs to be a good and necessary response. Every nation has its own perspective, but the E.U. as a whole is very concerned with what is going on in Moscow.
KW: To conclude, I wanted to ask you about your discussion in the book about China and its role in the world and our relationship to China.
WC: I think we can build a relationship with China on multiple levels. It has to be built not just at the top levels of government but at all levels. So, we need individual exchange, we need business exchange, we need banking exchange. At all levels, it's important. We also have to understand that China is a very different kind of country. It does have a national strategy and it does have a strong authoritarian government, and so it does not necessarily respond to the good will expressed at the bottom.